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  Modern urban design can be considered as part of the wider discipline of Urban planning. Indeed, Urban planning began as a movement primarily occupied with matters of urban design. Works such as Ildefons Cerda's General Theory of Urbanization (1867), Camillo Sitte’s City Planning According to Artistic Principles (1889), and Robinson’s The Improvement of Cities and Towns (1901) and Modern Civic Art (1903), all were primarily concerned with urban design, as did the later City Beautiful movement in North America.

  'Urban design' was first used as a distinctive term when Harvard University hosted a series of Urban Design Conferences from 1956 . These conferences provided a platform for the launching of Harvard's Urban Design program in 1959-60. The writings of Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen and Christopher Alexander became authoritative works for the school of Urban Design.

  Gordon Cullen's The Concise Townscape, first published in 1961, also had a great influence on many urban designers. Cullen examined the traditional artistic approach to city design of theorists such as Camillo Sitte, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin. He created the concept of 'serial vision', defining the urban landscape as a series of related spaces.

  Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, was also a catalyst for interest in ideas of urban design. She critiqued the Modernism of CIAM, and asserted that the publicly unowned spaces created by the 'city in the park' notion of Modernists was one of the main reasons for the rising crime rate. She argued instead for an 'eyes on the street' approach to town planning, and the resurrection of main public space precedents, such as streets and squares, in the design of cities.

  Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City of 1961 was also seminal to the movement, particularly with regards to the concept of legibility, and the reduction of urban design theory to five basic elements - paths, districts, edges, nodes, landmarks. He also made popular the use of mental maps to understanding the city, rather than the two-dimensional physical master plans of the previous 50 years.

  Other notable works include Rossi's Architecture of the City (1966), Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972), Colin Rowe's Collage City (1978), and Peter Calthorpe's The Next American Metropolis (1993). Rossi introduced the concepts of 'historicism' and 'collective memory' to urban design, and proposed a 'collage metaphor' to understand the collage of new and older forms within the same urban space. Calthorpe, on the other hand, developed a manifesto for sustainable urban living via medium density living, as well as a design manual for building new settlements in accordance with his concept of Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson in "The Social Logic of Space" (1984) introduced the concept of Space Syntax to predict how movement patterns in cities would contribute to urban vitality, anti-social behaviour and economic success. The popularity of these works resulted in terms such as 'historicism', 'sustainability', 'livability', 'high quality of urban components', etc. become everyday language in the field of urban planning.

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